Even in the middle of a revolutionary uprising, a few laughs can help break the tension. This advice comes from someone who should certainly know, actress Allison Guinn, who plays the scheming mistress of the house, Madame Thénardier, in Les Misérables.
Guinn heads to Houston (September 25-30) in the Broadway revival touring production of the beloved musical. She took timeout from bringing life to the innkeeper Les Miz fans love to hate to tell CultureMap why a bit of comedy makes the drama all the sweeter on stage.
A new Paris
The characters and songs remain as we know and love them in this revival, but Guinn says to expect some beautiful surprises in the staging. Gone is the revolving stage that helped to transport characters across space and time and instead set designer, Matt Kinley uses backdrops and projections based on the actual artwork of Victor Hugo to bring the streets of Paris to the theater.
“They look like watercolors, landscapes of different countrysides of Paris. It’s beautiful,” says Guinn.“The moodiness of it alone is breathtaking.”
But just because beauty is all around her, don’t expect a nicer Madame Thénardier, the conniving innkeeper and probably one of literature’s worst foster mothers, and there’s a lot of competition in that category. Guinn first saw Les Misérables when she was a preteen growing up in Tennessee and loved the character even then.
“I thought to myself: I want to be the one that makes people laugh. She left the biggest impression on me.”
Being a bad girl
But why Madame Thénardier?
“When playing a comedic villain you can lean into that deliciousness, that love-to-hate factor. If you’re playing a villain in earnest, that villain is not self-aware. They don’t know that they’re bad. You have to play for their goals and objectives. You don’t get to add the element of humor. She knows she’s bad and she doesn’t care. That’s so wonderful and freeing.”
In fact, Guinn thinks the moments of brevity the Thénardiers bring to story and music are vital for the audience and perhaps one of the reasons we can’t get enough of the drama and tragedy.
“It’s in the name: The Miserable Ones, and the audience is put through so much. Then they get to have this little refresher, this rest of levity. I’m grateful to provide it," she says. "I think you need that palate cleanser; otherwise, you’re in for a stressful trip. You need the full spectrum, the comedy to make that drama bearable.”
Guinn has felt the call of drama several times in her career, especially when she was in school studying and doing scenes of Chekhov and Sam Shepard, but she found comedy an inherent gift.
“I really delved into drama and tried to deny my natural goofiness. But I stopped trying to fight it, embraced it and that’s been a blessing.”
From the French revolution to HBO and Amy Schumer
That comic touch has earned her guest stints on Inside Amy Schumer and HBO’s Divorce, and it’s even led her to Houston in the past. She won the role of Poppy in an Alley Theatre production of Noises Off several years ago, her first full farce. She says she enjoyed her farcical time in Houston, finding it easy “to breathe” here, and spent time exploring the city by hitting the resale shops, something she does to both shop and get to know a town.
“There’s this the theory that when you’re older you’re going to be either a cat person or a knick knack person," she says, admitting she's very much the latter. "I’m just going to acquire all these tchotchkes until my apartment is completely full of oddities."
Being an acquirer of stuff instead of cats might be the one thing she does have in common with Madame Thénardier.
“I don’t think she would suffer cats. I think she’s probably a knick knack person. As much as she can acquire, she will have.”
Besides helping to make audiences a little less miserable, Guinn has another rather special skill. She’s a master of the autoharp, a favorite instrument of her grandmother, and says she continues to play in honor of granny. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been many Broadway parts written for comic actors with autoharp proficiency, though she tells quite a terrifying tale of trying out for the bluegrass musical Bright Star, in front of its creator Steve Martin.
“I wasn’t prepared for him to be in the room, and I walked in with my little autoharp and there he was. I was just gobsmacked,” she describes with laughter. “I think I rambled on for too long about how much I appreciated the show. I think I said something like: thank you for representing the Appalachian culture in a positive light. I couldn’t stop talking. I played well, but I think my babbling scared him.”
Guinn proves even in her own life a little misery can be very funny.
Mischer Neurosciences Broadway at the Hobby Center presents Les Miserables September 25-30. Visit the official site for tickets, showtimes, and more information.